Daily Digest: Biography of a screen queen, and of a terrorist; a custom room and a colorful custom

by Mike Mullen

– The iconic actress Elizabeth Taylor has died. Described in the New York Times obituary as “a constant star,” Taylor got famous young, and stayed famous, even as her work rate dropped off. ( According to IMDB, Taylor did only three movies since 1980, the last of which, in 1994, was the live-action “The Flinstones.” Oof.) Though she won two best actress Oscars, for “Butterfield 8,” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Taylor will probably be remembered more as a voluptuous, raven-haired beauty (skip around a bit, and notice how many obits come with a slide show) and for the highs and lows of her offscreen life. Let’s consider just a single paragraph from the Times’ obit: “When she returned to the Ford clinic for further treatment, she met Larry Fortensky, a construction worker, who was also a patient. In a wedding spectacular in 1991, she and Mr. Fortensky were married at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch in Santa Ynez, Calif., with celebrated guests sharing the grounds with Mr. Jackson’s giraffes, zebras and llamas.” But, no, let’s not dwell on that. Let’s think back instead to when a younger, saner Liz Taylor, then the most glamorous woman alive, became the object of her co-star Richard Burton’s obsession on the set of “Cleopatra.” The two divorced their spouses for each other, then divorced each other, then married, then divorced again. In the course of their love affair, as revealed in a recent book, Burton’s love and madness poured into a series of letters inspired by, and sent to Taylor, none more dramatic than this, which came during a separation: “Well, first of all, you must realize that I worship you. Second of all, at the expense of seeming repetitive, I love you. Thirdly, and here I go again with my enormous command of language, I can’t live without you. Thirdly, I mean fourthly, you have an enormous responsibility because if you leave me I shall have to kill myself. There is no life without you, I’m afraid.”

– The L.A. Times has an exclusive, inside story on Bruce Ivins, the Army scientist whose anthrax mailings in the fall of 2001 killed five Americans, and terrified the rest of them. Ivins targeted the government — closing Senate, and House buildings — and media, mailing anthrax to the three major TV networks, and the tabloids the National Enquirer and the New York Post. With notes like, “DEATH TO AMERICA,” and “DEATH TO ISRAEL,” and in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, the mailings were taken as the next stage of Al-Qaeda’s war on America. In fact, after years of investigation, the FBI has concluded that the anthrax letters were the work of Ivins, a lone, well-placed madman. And according to the L.A. Times’ report, the Army should have seen it coming, with his pattern of troubled behavior: “For instance, on a government form he completed in 1987, he placed question marks next to these items regarding his psychiatric history: ‘Memory Change,’ ‘Trouble With Decisions,’ ‘Hallucinations,’ ‘Improbable Beliefs’ and ‘Anxiety.'” Doubts remain, and probably always will, about Ivins’ guilt. And no real answer is forthcoming, at least not from him: as the investigation turned its focus to Ivins in the summer of 2008, he swallowed a bunch of Tylenol PM pills, and died.

– The Star Tribune has a nice little story about a local contractor whose work has gotten some not-so-local attention. In 2005, Hopkins resident Steve Kuhl did a little remodeling for his brother’s house, creating signature rooms, including one for his six year old nephew: “Kuhl pulled out all the stops in the bedroom, which included a ship’s hull jutting out of the wall, a crow’s nest, a rope bridge, a jail cell (“for evil-doers,” Kuhl said) and an under-the-sea paint job.” I’m always a bit troubled by these kind of projects, even when they’re in the name of charity, as on “Extreme Home Makeover.” First, kids’ interests are always shifting. (“Steve, do you think that crow’s next could be converted to an airplane cockpit? Oh, wait, sorry, could you make that cockpit into a tree house–no, stop, turn the tree house back into a crow’s nest.”) Second, kids grow up, and a lot of kids just want a plain room, and a plain bed, and a window they can sneak out of. In fact, Kuhl’s brother doesn’t even live there anymore — he sold the house, and now a new family, with teenage kids, has a pirate room. (On a side note, anyone who custom designs a room with the stuff that would actually make a teenage boy happy should be immediately indicted, as should most teenage boys.)

– Finally, the Atlantic has an amazing collection of photos from last week’s Holi celebration in India. Holi, also called the “Festival of Colors,” is described as a way of “celebrating the arrival of Spring, commemorating Krishna’s pranks, and allowing everyone a momentary freedom — a chance to drop their inhibitions and simply play and dance.” By the looks of it, dyed water and brightly-colored powder are scattered, smeared, and thrown everywhere, and on everyone. Imagine an extended, nation-wide acid trip, and you’ll get the point, but the pictures must be seen. Of the Atlantic’s selection, my favorites are number 29 (three bright-red men taking a smoke break), and number 34, in which an Indian border guard gives his coworkers the classic, “All right, that’s enough already” face. Most of the photos capture people in absolute joy or spiritual concentration, but some of that might get lost in translation. Here, watch Ricky Gervais’ friend Karl Pilkington, who enjoys almost nothing, and understands even less, experience Holi.